Flood-battered Chennai residents struggled to stay afloat in an ocean of misery, clinging onto hope – and each other -- after the heaviest rains in a century caused massive flooding in India’s fourth most populous city.
The floods – caused by torrential rains blamed on climate change to an extent -- shut down auto factories, paralysed the civil airport and drove thousands of people out of their inundated homes.
The Indian Navy’s air base at Arakkonam -- 70 km west of Chennai – was hastily readied for commercial flights to evacuate hundreds of passengers stranded at the civil airport, which has been shut till December 6.
The Navy facilitated the landing of an Air India Airbus A320 jet at the base, INS Rajali, on Wednesday evening, officials said adding that this will provide momentum to relief and rescue operations in the capital of Tamil Nadu.
However, the weatherman sent out warning for more rain in the next four days though the met office said the intensity of the showers will gradually decrease.
“There will be no respite,” Laxman Singh Rathore of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) said on Wednesday.
It was not good news for the people struggling to move out to safety.
People formed human chains to traverse treacherous stretches of roads many of which developed sinkholes, sought and found help on social media and dug in at some areas where the water level reached the second floor of apartment buildings.
The authorities deployed men and machine of the Army, air force and Navy for one of the biggest peacetime operations in the country to rescue thousands of people from homes and workplaces in the city of more than six million people.
“Only crows are coming and no helicopters. None of us have had any food for the past two days and there is no one who is even looking this way,” said K Srinu, a 35-year-old carpenter stranded in the heart of the city, as he waited for rescue teams to evacuate his father, a heart patient.
Physician Rupam Choudhury said he and a friend had to wade through neck-deep water to reach high ground from where an army truck brought him to his hospital in the heart of Chennai.
Dr A Ramachandran’s Diabetes Hospital was running out of oxygen for patients and diesel for power generators, he said by telephone.
Most mobile networks were down in the city and food supplies running low.
Most neighbourhoods were without electricity as power was switched off to prevent accidents.
The few shops that remained open in Chennai were virtually raided by customers, with people resorting to panic buying. Many shops ran out of bread, milk and vegetables.
Most of the ATMs were closed as there was no power and the few that did function, had long queues of people.
Passengers stranded at the airport said they did not know when they would be able to fly, or where to stay if they could not. “All of us here are getting agitated because none of the hotels nearby are vacant. Where do we go?” traveller Vinit Jain told Reuters Television.
It was a plight shared by many across the city as rescue teams, including personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), moved from one locality to another, helping women, children and the infirm first.
Suburban roads and bylanes witnessed men, women and children struggling to reach dry land on rafts made of oil barrels tied together, banana tree stems or any buoyant household object they could lay their hands on.
Schools have been closed and the Jayalalithaa government ordered postponement of half-yearly examinations that were to start from December 7.
Hundreds of people opened their homes to strangers caught in the flood. Social media has been abuzz with people offering help, while some chided the government for failing to take preventive steps.
More than 200 people were injured over the past 24 hours, a senior home ministry official said.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi blamed climate change for the deluge, injecting urgency into the debate at the global climate talks in Paris and highlighting the vulnerability of tropical nations like India to extreme weather.
Modi, who had spoken to chief minister J Jayalalithaa and assured full support from the Centre, met senior cabinet colleagues Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Venkaiah Naidu in Delhi to soar up emergency measures.
The National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC), headed by cabinet secretary PK Sinha, met in Delhi on Wednesday to line up resources for Tamil Nadu and neighbouring states .
Parliamentarians, cutting across party lines, also made a strong pitch for providing quick assistance to Tamil Nadu. Rajya Sabha members agreed to contribute a part of their MP Local Area Development scheme funds to the state government for relief and rehabilitation of affected victims.
(With inputs from agencies)